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Apple shooting for supercomputer heights

The company lands a big customer for its Power Mac G5: Virginia Tech, which will use 1,100 G5s as part of a cluster that's designed to make the list of the world's largest supercomputers.

Apple Computer has landed a major customer for its Power Mac G5, with Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University confirming Tuesday that it will use 1,100 of the machines as part of a supercomputer cluster now under construction.

The university, better known as Virginia Tech, said it has been working with the Mac maker for months to set up the massive computer cluster. The dual 2GHz machines started coming off the manufacturing lines last month, the school said.

"Virginia Tech's idea was to develop a supercomputer of national prominence based upon a homegrown cluster," Hassan Aref, dean of Virginia Tech's College of Engineering, said in a statement.

Apple notified some customers this week that their dual processor Power Mac G5 machines would be delayed, as the company shifts its priorities to certain educational institutions.

The new cluster is designed to make its way into the rankings of the world's largest supercomputers, a list that currently has no Macs. Virginia Tech will use the cluster to perform research on nanoscale electronics, chemistry, aerodynamics, molecular statics, computational acoustics and molecular modeling, among other tasks. Details of the project were first reported by Mac enthusiast site Think Secret.

The servers in the cluster will be connected through 24 high-speed Infiniband switches from Mellanox Technologies. Infiniband, which was developed by a consortium of server and storage companies, provides greater bandwidth than other interconnect technologies on the market, such as Miranet, and can often cost less.

"It basically exceeds the performance of the proprietary interconnects," said Dana Krelle, vice president of marketing at Mellanox.

The cluster also uses a cooling system from Liebert, a division of Emerson Network Power, as well as Gigabit Ethernet switches from Cisco Systems.

Clustering, which involves linking hundreds or thousands of computers to take on massive projects, has opened the supercomputing market to companies other than those like IBM and Cray that have established backgrounds in big iron. Dell has emerged as one of the leaders in selling clusters to research institutions such as Cornell University. Utah's Linux Networx, meanwhile, has won contracts to install systems at Los Alamos and other national research laboratories.